PHILADELPHIA -- Flash mobs have become a pop culture phenomenon, popularized when videos of large groups of people breaking out in song and dance in public places started showing up on YouTube.
But the flash mob craze has recently taken a dangerous turn, with a recent trend of "flash robs" showing up across the country.
The National Retail Federation reports that 10 percent of retailers surveyed in July have reported flash robs at their stores. With the holiday shopping season just around the corner, many fear that number could spike.
Mob Mentality Amuck
At one 7-Eleven store in Maryland, dozens of young people removed items from store shelves and walked out without paying for them.
Flash rob incidents have also been reported in cities across the country, including Chicago, Milwaukee, and Dallas, Texas.
In Philadelphia, there have been several cases of aggressive and even violent flash mobs.
At the Macy's department store in Centre City district, a group of 150 teens rushed into the store. Once inside, they knocked customers to the floor and over turned store displays.
Safety Tips for Retailers:
- Maintain low levels of cash in the store.
- Monitor social network sites for indications that groups will be descending on a store.
- Instruct workers to alert managers when they see unusually large gatherings of people inside or directly outside store.
- Read more flash mob safety tips.
Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross said many of the groups become violent as the mob mentality takes over.
"We've had issues where people were assaulted who were merely minding their own business, sitting at sidewalk cafes, walking down the street," he told CBN News.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter made headlines in August when he blasted kids involved with flash mob crimes.
Nutter condemned the violent flash mobs during a service at his own church, Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.
"To our young people, if you want black folks, if you want white folks, Latinos, Asians or anyone else to respect you and not be afraid when you walk down the street, then leave the innocent people who are walking down the street minding their own d__ business, leave them alone," he told the congregation.
The mayor also imposed a strict citywide curfew for anyone under the age of 18.
"I think it shocked the kids a little bit, at first a little bit. Some of whom, who, either professed they didn't know about it or genuinely didn't know about it, soon found that they were going to be taken into custody for it. And they were," Deputy Commissioner Ross explained.
"And as a result. I think it's helped us immensely. I think the messaging has gotten out," he added.
Pastor Alyn Waller, with Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, agreed with the mayor's tough stance on the flash mob crimes.
"I think that his words were strong, his words were part of the answer," he explained.
A Spiritual Issue
Waller said he believes the other part of the solution is found in the faith community.
"At the end of the day, it is a spiritual issue and the mayor, any mayor is not the boss of the spiritual stuff of the city," he told CBN News.
Pastor Waller said a big part of the problem is that many young people are angry for a lot of reasons.
Those reasons include the "deplorable conditions that they're having to live with in their families, in their schools in the street and this is an out growth of that," he said.
Authorities say social media sites like Twitter and Facebook played a role in organizing many of the flash mob scenarios.
That also happened when mobs took to the streets in England after a demonstration over a police shooting turned violent. Angry youth ransacked stores and torched cards and buildings.
"People who want to use it negatively do so, and you have seen instances where people are using these tools for criminal activity," Lee Brenner, with the millennial generation organization Hypervocal.com, told CBN News.
This summer, rapper Machine Gun Kelly was arrested after a flash mob he organized online got out of hand at a Cleveland, Ohio, mall.
Brenner's organization also offers training to police and other organizations on how to use social networking tools to their advantage.
"Cracking down on this is a challenge for police or officials that are trying to find these people before it happens ideally," he said.
"But I think what police and organizations that are working with these young people need to be is be aware that these tools exist and be cognizant of how they work," he said.
"It's very difficult. Some of those sites are created in such a way in which you have to be a friend to even get involved in it," Ross said. "So we've tried to do things, disguise ourselves to get into some of those sites."
Earlier this year, officials in Cleveland approved a measure to make it illegal to use social media to organize a violent and disorderly flash mob.
But the mayor vetoed the legislation after the American Civil Liberties Union said it would be unconstitutional. The city council is considering new legislation to combat the problem.
Staying Out of Trouble
Pastor Waller's church is addressing the growing problem by reaching at-risk kids through sports.
"Primarily we reach out to kids through athletics," Waller said.
His church has several football teams, where kids of all ages from the community make up the teams.
He said when kids are busy with football they don't have time for getting into trouble, including participating in flash mob crimes.
Kids who play for the church football teams said the game helps keep them focused on the right track.
"It keeps me out of trouble because it eliminates me being in bad situations around my neighborhood and where I shouldn't be at the wrong time cause anything could happen," Khalil Williams said. "When I'm here, I know I'm in a safe environment."
"It keeps me from hanging around the wrong people and doing the right stuff," D'Andre Swift said.
Teammate Greg Stanfield is thankful for the program, too. He was at football practice when a deadly shooting happened in his neighborhood.
"One of us would have been in the crossfire. It was just crazy," he told CBN News.
Winning Kids' Hearts
Coach Darren Swift said the church football team offers kids something secular teams don't.
"We're ministry first. It's not about the X's and O's -- it's not about the wins and losses," Swift said.
"We try to have strict guidelines. The children have to learn Bible verses every week," he explained. "If you mess up in school you cannot play. We hold you to a higher standard because we know its hard out here."
Their example is why police officials in Philadelphia told CBN News that it's imperative for the city to team with the faith community.
"We always look to partner with any community-based group, faith-based group," Ross said. "It's going to make things a lot easier for us and everybody living here."
Pastor Waller said the faith leaders must be committed to ministering love and healing to young people involved with crime, flash robs, or otherwise. He said the Bible commands it.
"They're hungry. That's what all this is about. The violence. They're just hungry," he said.
"They're eating right now trash And that's the word to us," he added. "Let's go feed them, let's go help them. And do it by any means necessary."